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The History & Evolution of the Salwar Kameez

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

Elation Collection Pakistan Fashion Brand, Online Female Clothing Store The salwar kameez has a rich history and culture attached to it. DESIblitz explores how this exquisite garment has evolved through the years.

Salwar kameez, also known as shalwar kameez, is a traditional dress commonly worn in countries such as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

The garment frequently consists of a salwar, which is a baggy drawstring trouser and a kameez, which is a long tunic.

Although this ensemble is worn by men, the salwar kameez is often accompanied by a dupatta or chunni (shawl) for women.

Interestingly, the salwar kameez emerged out of many traditions and cultures and it holds a great deal of respect.

The suit is widely known for providing the wearer with comfortable eloquence.

The salwar kameez has been around for centuries and has a long rich history that many people may not know about.

DESIblitz discusses the origins of this much-loved garment, its history and how it has evolved over the years.


When a person thinks of the salwar kameez, they would inevitably think it originated from Pakistan and India, however, this is not the case.

The history of the outfit is not just isolated in one country.

Although the exact date and origins are unknown, the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) is believed to have been the first colony of people to introduce the outfit to the world.

However, through evolution, the modern-day salwar kameez has traces of Persian influence.

The word salwar is a Persian word that means “a form of baggy trousers” with a drawstring. While kameez is an Arabic word meaning long tunic.

In October 2016, Monisha Kumar and Amita Walia published a research paper titled ‘Elucidation of the Indian Salwar Kameez’. Within the publication, they suggest that:

“It can be easily interpreted that the origin of the garment, salwar kameez, is either Persian or Arabic.”

Basic Arab dress for both men and women consisted of a “simple tunic and an unfitted garment pulled on over the head”.

In addition, countries like Turkey were heavily impactful on South Asia, notably influencing the salwar kameez.

The classical Turkish dress consisted of loose-fitting salwar’s, with a shirt and a long jacket called the ‘?alvar’.

The Muslim Seljuk Turks “emerged from Central Asia, establishing dynasties in Iran and Asia by the eleventh century”. They spread Islam and Turkic culture.

The Selijuk Empire “later morphed into the Ottoman Empire”. The Ottoman Empire encompassed “most of the lands surrounding the East Mediterranean” by the mid-sixteenth century.

Kumar and Walia maintain:

“The 500-year Ottoman rule throughout the Arab world resulted in the blending of garment forms.”

Further expressing:

“The adoption of buttoned vests or jackets of silk or wool decorated with embroidery, and the loose-fitting trousers salwars are evidence of such borrowings in Arab dress.”

They also mentioned how the traditional dress of Iran and Afghanistan of layered coats and salwars also lends support to the blending of garment forms.

These forms of the salwar and the kameez was in fact introduced in South Asia when the Muslims conquered India in the 12th century.

Author Ming-Ju Sun in the book Traditional Fashions from India Paper Dolls (2001), stated:

“Much of traditional Indian women’s clothing changed in the 12th century when Muslims conquered north and central India.”

Prior to this, the clothing of the Indian subcontinent consisted of various draped garments.

In her book Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India (1996), Emma Tarlo asserts that this was due to:

“The comparatively limited range of stitched clothes available in pre-medieval India was, however, greatly expanded during the Sultanate and Mughul periods when various types of trousers, robes and tunics gained in popularity.”

“New dress styles were developed to cover the body as much as possible, befitting Islamic preferences.”

Muslim women mainly wore a dupatta veil, with a long tunic kameez and a trouser style salwar.

Following the invasion of the Muslims, gradually many Hindu women in the subcontinent adopted the dress.

It was mainly worn in the Punjabi northern areas of the subcontinent and it was in this area where it cemented its place as the regional style of Punjab.

It has been worn in that area for centuries and after some transitions, the dress is popularly known as the salwar kameez.

Types of Salwar Kameez

After the salwar kameez became popular amongst both men and women in the Indian subcontinent, most specifically in the northern areas, many variations have developed.

Although the foundations of the outfit remain the same, it is the way these styles are all cut differently that makes them unique.

Patiala Suit

The Patiala salwar kameez consists of a very baggy salwar that is stitched in pleats and worn with a knee-length kameez.

It requires double the length of material, due to the pleats however, the fall of the pleats gives a gorgeous cowl effect at the back.

The Patiala salwar kameez has its roots in Patiala City, a northern region state in Punjab, India.

From 1813-1845, this specific style was in fact developed as a majestic dress, as it was the royal dress of the King of Patiala, Maharaja Karam Singh.

In order to make it more regal, it was originally made in rich materials accompanied by diamond necklaces as the salwar was mainly worn by men during this period.

However, over the years with the emergence of new cuts and styles, it has evolved into a woman’s salwar kameez style.

Due to the looseness and lightweight fabrics, it is very comfortable to wear and preferred by women in Punjab because of the hot climate.


The churidar style of this cultural outfit is “the redefined form of the traditional” salwar kameez.

The salwar is extremely fitted and narrow and wrinkles at the wearer’s ankles, exposing the shape of your legs. The churidar is worn with a dress like a kameez accompanied by a dupatta.

The churidar looks very much like western leggings, but it is actually much longer than your leg therefore it stacks at the ankle.

The excess fabric almost gathers at the ankle like bangles on the wrist, this is in fact where the name comes from.

Churi means ‘bangle’, while dar means ‘like’ – so essentially it means a salwar that is ‘like a bangle’.

This style is worn widely across both Pakistan and India and gives off an extremely stylish elegant look whilst complimenting different body types.


Anarkali suits consist of a long frock style kameez with a churidar or salwar trousers. The kameez is normally flared at the bottom, imitating western formal dresses.

However, this wide cut gleams with its beautiful embroidery and contrasting stitching making the ensemble pop.

This type is named after Anarkali, a court dancer from Lahore, Pakistan. Anarkali was thought to be the love interest of Mughal Emperor Jahangir.

The salwar kameez gives off an effortless feminine vibe and looks gorgeous on anyone who wears it.

In Urdu, anarkali means ‘delicate bud of the pomegranate flower/ tree’.

This name is thought to signify innocence, softness, and beauty. Subsequently, the women that wear it are thought to possess the same qualities.

It is a timeless style that has evolved greatly over the years and there are in fact different types of anarkali suits available.

These include churidar anarkali suit, cape style anarkali suit, jacket style anarkali suit, layered anarkali suit, floor-length anarkali suit, gown Style anarkali suit, and palazzo anarkali suit.

Printed Suits

In recent years, printed salwar kameez suits have become popular.

They are called printed salwar kameez’s as they have been either machine printed or digitally printed.

A variety of designs can be printed and fabrics such as georgette, crepe, cotton, and chiffon. The printed designs tend to give off a more casual look.

Although, more modern styles that incorporate floral and cultural designs have made printed suits a go-to outfit for many occasions whether it’s a family gathering or engagement party.


The Sharara is another variation of the salwar kameez. It consists of a straight kameez, with a flared wide-legged trousers that almost resembles a lehenga.

Embellished with gorgeous and vibrant sequins, stones and beads, the sharara has been popular in India since the early 60s, due to Bollywood movies.

It was in the 90s and early 2000s that transcended this certain style again. Even more recently, Deepika Padukone shone in the 2015 film, Bajirao Mastani, with her incredible and elegant

sharara suits.

The style is popular amongst young South Asian women, especially given the modern and sleek designs that are taking over the fashion world.


Another variation to the classic salwar kameez is the gharara style.

The gharara consists of a short kameez with a trouser that is fitted from the waist to the knee and then flares out just above the knee to the toes.

It originated in the Awadh region of Uttar Pradesh, India, during the 18th century.

The gharara is a traditional outfit of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh.

While it originates in India, the gharara is also extremely popular in both Pakistan and Bangladesh.

It became widely popular in the 50s when public figures like first lady Rana Liaquat Ali Khan and politician Fatima Jinnah wore them.


The clothing of Baluchistan in Pakistan includes a variation of the traditional salwar kameez for both men and women.

For men, the salwar is very baggy and the kameez is loose with long sleeves.

On the other hand, the salwar kameez’s for women in Baluchistan are very distinct. They consist of a long loose dress kameez, with a dupatta and salwar.

The kameez’s from this region can have over 118 different compositions, using the famous silk-thread chain-stitch embroidery which results in unique balochi designs.

Peshawari Suit

Peshwar, the capital of the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has its own style of salwar kameez.

The traditional dress includes the Peshawari salwar, which is very loose, and a khalqa (gown) that opens at the front.

The salwar kameez is not just an epitome of South Asian tradition and culture. It is also an embodiment of the diverseness of different regions in the Indian subcontinent.

The types of salwar kameez suits discussed are worn in different regions, communities and cultures.

However, over the years the styles have greatly evolved and the designs have become popular all over South Asia, not just in a specific region.


The salwar kameez is well-loved in Pakistan. In 1973, it became the national dress of Pakistan and is worn avidly by both men and women.

In Pakistan, the salwar kameez is worn in many exquisite colours and designs.

Each province has its own version and style of this national dress, including the Sindhi, Punjabi, Balochi, Kashmiri, and Pashtun cuts.

Since 1982, government officials working in the Secretariat in Islamabad are required to wear a salwar kameez.

Over the years it has also emerged as a political statement. This was particularly done by former Pakistan President, General Zia-ul-Haq Bhutto, who wore it during his public rallies.

Much more than an epitome of tradition, it is also an exemplar of nationalism in Pakistan.

Since ex-cricketer, Imran Khan became Prime Minister of Pakistan he has been seen wearing a salwar kameez.

The Print publication expressed:

“The man who once wooed the world in blue jeans, dapper tucks and sunglasses has now religiously taken to the simple white ‘shalwar-kameez’.”

He is always seen in traditional attire, even when he goes abroad for visits. Most famously he wore a navy-blue salwar kameez on his visit to the White House in 2019.


Although the national dress of India is the saree, the salwar kameez has become a staple in Indian fashion.

Especially in Punjab, which neighbours Pakistan in the North of India. Most Punjabi women are seen to wear this attire as opposed to the saree, which is worn more evidently in the mid to south of India.

This attire was also transported to Britain when families of migrant Punjabi men came to England in the 50s and 60s.

The salwar kameez has gradually become popular among many women in India as well as the north, especially due film and television promoting the attire.

In particular, the popularity of Bollywood fashion has heightened the prevalence of the salwar kameez.

Through time, smash-hit movies like Dil Toh Pagal Hai (1997), Veer Zaara (2004), Jab We Met (2007) have all popularised the salwar kameez.

Promoting the traditional outfit in fluorescent colours, graceful designs and luxurious cuts leaves audiences craving to look like the Bollywood starlets.

Moreover, unlike the sari, which requires practice and poise, the salwar kameez is much more practical for modern-day life.

This is one of the major reasons why women in India opt for this co-ord, especially as it is more comfortable in the Indian heat.

The salwar kameez is particularly popular amongst younger Indian women.

In the 1980s, Indian government schools adopted the dress as their official uniform for school girls aged 12-16.

Due to this, the salwar kameez is also popular amongst college and university students in India. Often the traditional kameez’s are worn with jeans for more of a modern fusion look.

Bollywood Influence

Monisha Kumar and Amita Walia state:

“Over the decades the salwar kameez has been the focus of many designers and has been transformed as per the prevalent fashion trends.”

There are specific regional styles of the salwar kameez that are worn by individuals from the area.

However, predominantly the fashion worn in Bollywood films has shaped fashion trends in South Asia and have had a major influence on the evolution of the salwar kameez.

Many designers have tried to imitate the designs they see in popular films in order to meet the demands of consumers.

The 1960s – 1970s

When it came to this era of Bollywood fashion, vibrant colours and western tailoring techniques dominated the screens.

One of the most memorable styles of this period was made popular by the legendary Madhubala, who played Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam (1960).

In one of the scenes, she wore a colourful embroidered Anarkali suit and it quickly became an iconic Bollywood look.

The popularity of this film helped to bolster the Anarkali suit more widely as the vibrancy attracted many designers.

Also, during this period Bollywood played a major role in endorsing the churidar kameez.

The style became very fashionable in the 60s and costume designers like Bhanu Athaiya transcended the look.

Notably, actress Sadhana Shivdasani in the film Waqt (1965) wore a white sleeveless figure-hugging kameez, with a churidar and a diaphanous dupatta.

This was a ground-breaking style that reflected the confidence of the liberated woman who was breaking traditional conformity.

It became a classic look of the swinging 60s and developed into a must-have in every fashionista’s wardrobe.

The 1980s

This era saw a continuation of the Anarkali suits in Umrao Jaan (1981), which was inspired by the 1960 movie Mughal-e-Azam.

Rekha wore an iconic metallic gold Anarkali, net dupatta, and the classic 80s gold jewellery and glossy red lips.

Along with this, plain or sometimes sequined fitted salwar kameez suits became popular. They were sometimes paired with waistcoats for a more experimental look.

This can be seen in Zeenat Aman’s classic sequin pink salwar kameez in the 1980 film Dostana.

Long-sleeved flared kurta with a pajama salwar also was seen quite frequently in 80s Bollywood movies.

The 1990s

The 90s witnessed changes in the economy and a fresh new bolder generation which was reflected in Bollywood films and their fashion.

This decade turned towards more sheer and strappy salwar kameez’s with a skinny dupatta that was sometimes worn around the arms.

The kameez’s often showed more chest with the deep V necks illustrating the cultural shift towards more revealing ensembles.

The minimalistic look was seen most famously on Madhuri Dixit in Dil Toh Pagal Hai (1997).

The suits she wore were often made out of chiffon and were monochromatic, in colours such as white and yellow. This look became an instant hit within the fashion world.

The 2000s

In the 2000s, Bollywood fashion had more of a free-spirited colourful vibe. Short kurtas paired with loose Patiala salwars were frequently seen on screen.

The film Bunty Aur Babli (2005) featured a new trendy look of a collard short kurta and colourful Patiala sported by Rani Mukherjee.

Rani became an icon amongst college-goers with her easy, comfortable, and stylish wardrobe.

Similarly, Kareena Kapoor’s outfits in Jab We Met (2007) were well-loved by millennials.

She wore both plain and colourful kurta with the Patiala salwar. In the film, she also wore more of a fusion look when she paired the patiala salwar with a T-shirt and no dupatta.

The 2000s also saw the release of the popular film Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001).